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Kevin
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I'm curious to know if people here have any strong thoughts about Wagner, his music, and his dramas. Until this year, I didn't know much about him or his music, beyond his rather infamous reputation, but the more I read and hear about him, the more important and revolutionary he seems to be.

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Which libretti and what offending passages did you have in mind?

Well there's "Parsifal" where the hero is a hero precisely because he is chaste, a man of faith, and stupid (i.e. the Christian crusader ideal).

Also the first two operas of the "Ring of the Nibelungen" had a strong anti-capitalist bent where the dwarf is a stand-in for the exploitative business classes, and is characterized by greed (and traditionally he is played up as a Jewish stereotype), and the hero represents a liberating of the common folk from the thrall.

The first two operas of the Ring we conceived in the climate of the 1848 revolutions. He apparently didn't know where to go from their and the last two are more straightforward fantasy.

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If Christian themes are offensive to you, then the bulk of Western art and literature must be a major turn off -- from the Sistine Chapel to Les Miserables. Even Rand’s favorite composer, Sergey Rachmaninoff, wrote “Come, Let Us Bow Before The Lord.”

And trying to read anti-capitalist messages into ancient Nordic sagas is just silly.

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If Christian themes are offensive to you, then the bulk of Western art and literature must be a major turn off -- from the Sistine Chapel to Les Miserables. Even Rand’s favorite composer, Sergey Rachmaninoff, wrote “Come, Let Us Bow Before The Lord.”

And trying to read anti-capitalist messages into ancient Nordic sagas is just silly.

Wagner composed "Das Rheingold", and "Die Walkuere" with the anti-capitalist message in mind as something of an allegory. He still had something of the spirit of 1848 in him at the time. Wagner chose to read it into the story. This is part of the reason he wasn't sure where to go with the whole thing after "Die Walkuere".

As for "Parsifal", the point isn't whether Christian themes exist in Western art. The point is whether offering up a chaste, faith-driven, imbecile (albeit also a perfect physical specimen) as a heroic ideal has much to offer.

Anyway, I'd say the ideal in 'Parsifal' is rather more Schopenhauerian than Christian.

It is interesting to note as well that the heroic ideal offered in "Parsifal" is also the heroic ideal advocated by the Nazis.

Edited by punk
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punk wrote:

Wagner composed \\\"Das Rheingold\\\", and \\\"Die Walkuere\\\" with the anti-capitalist message in mind as something of an allegory. He still had something of the spirit of 1848 in him at the time. Wagner chose to read it into the story. This is part of the reason he wasn\\\'t sure where to go with the whole thing after \\\"Die Walkuere\\\".

As for “Parsifa”\\\", the point isn\\\'t whether Christian themes exist in Western art. The point is whether offering up a chaste, faith-driven, imbecile (albeit also a perfect physical specimen) as a heroic ideal has much to offer.

Anyway, I\\\'d say the ideal in \\\'Parsifal\\\' is rather more Schopenhauerian than Christian.

It is interesting to note as well that the heroic ideal offered in “Parsifal” is also the heroic ideal advocated by the Nazis.

Wagner had it in mind, you say? Would you care to present notes, diaries, letters to that effect?

Parsifal and Tannhauser put both faith over self, but they are no different in that regard than countless other Christian heroes in Western literature. Yes, Parsifal is slow witted, but that is his handicap not his strength. By comparison, are we to suppose that Victor Hugo’s inarticulate hunchback is the heroic ideal?

As for the Nazis. it was Wagner’s celebration of pagan legends that they admired, not his Christian opera. If you want to get into guilt by association, why not observe that Hitler and Ayn Rand both praised Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, which is a non-operatic rendering of Wagner’s source material?

Edited by Gary Brenner
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Wagner had it in mind, you say? Would you care to present notes, diaries, letters to that effect?

Parsifal and Tannhauser put both faith over self, but they are no different in that regard than countless other Christian heroes in Western literature. Yes, Parsifal is slow witted, but that is his handicap not his strength. By comparison, are we to suppose that Victor Hugo’s inarticulate hunchback is the heroic ideal?

As for the Nazis. it was Wagner’s celebration of pagan legends that they admired, not his Christian opera. If you want to get into guilt by association, why not observe that Hitler and Ayn Rand both praised Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, which is a non-operatic rendering of Wagner’s source material?

Check out the three volume set from Time Life containing the titles:

The Perfect Wagnerite

Ring Resounding

Richard Wagner

Its in one of them (I think the first actually).

Also, Wagner was never a Christian, he was a Schopenhauerian. He was adapting a world-denying Christian legend ("Parsifal") to the world-denying Schopenhauerian philosophy.

Edited by punk
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Do you like his music?

From what I've heard, very much, though my experience has been mainly orchestral- I'm a clarinetist by trade, so I'm naturally more inclined to the instrumental aspects of his work. Still, I spent several years studying voice as well, and my intial experiences of the operas have been pretty overwhlelming. And actually, as it happens, I'm writing a paper on Tristan and Parsifal (the operas, not the myths), which is why I brought it up in the first place. I can certainly see how Objectivists would be turned off by the philosophical ideas in Parsifal, but I'm surprised that The Ring is equally repellant to some. From what I've read of Wagner's writing around the revolutionary period seems to exalt the power of human will and ambition. True, there was a pretty heavy socialist side to that, but for th emost part he seemed wrapped up in the idea of Men creating a better world through reason and ambition. So, while I can see how some elements of anti0capitalism might be percieved, I think it's more a matter of anti-money obsession, if that makes sense. Certainly it's not a criticism of Man's efficacy in general. Consider Wagner's context- one of his main beefs with opera in his early period was that it had become singularly focused on profit, at least in his eyes. Composers were no longer writing works that were meaningful to them or to others, but simply chasing after an easy buck. Perhaps that conception did give money in general a bitter taste for him, but to say that his work is anti-capitalist because of that seems like a stretch.

That said, the later period after his first encounters with Schoppenhauer are a whole different story, and one that has much less to praise, philosophically speaking.

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Consider Wagner's context- one of his main beefs with opera in his early period was that it had become singularly focused on profit, at least in his eyes. Composers were no longer writing works that were meaningful to them or to others, but simply chasing after an easy buck.

Hmmm, this from a man who spent his life living beyond his means on borrowed money.

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Hmmm, this from a man who spent his life living beyond his means on borrowed money.

True, and I wouldn't be surprised if that made him even more resentful of men like Meyerbeer. Then again, it's iteresting to consider whether or not he could have folowed a similar path- written msic of mass appeal. Kind of reminds me of the sculptor, Mallory, from The Fountainhead- he definitely wasn't immune to feeling of of anger or despair. In fact, it's an interesting hypothetical: what it Mallory had met someone like Schoppenhaur rather than someone like Roark, or visa versa? I guess we'll never know. Still, I'm not trying to excuse Wagner- there was much about his character that seems pretty despicable. But he did at least present an idea of Man tha was initally very heroic.

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punk wrote:[/p]

Check out the three volume set from Time Life containing the titles:

The Perfect Wagnerite

Ring Resounding

Richard Wagner

Its in one of them (I think the first actually).

Also, Wagner was never a Christian, he was a Schopenhauerian. He was adapting a world-denying Christian legend (“Parsifal”) to the world-denying Schopenhauerian philosophy.

I’ve read the first. In fact, I recommended it in my first post on this page. The point is that unless you have Wagner’s own words outlining an anti-capitalist thesis for the Ring, your claim is nothing more than a subjective interpretation.

Furthermore, whether Wagner was a Christian or not is irrelevant to your allegation that there is something objectionable about his libretti. Let’s see some evidence for that assertion.

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Gary: I wasn't implying that Wagner was guilty because the Nazis loved his work and used it for their own propaganda. Rather, I was underscoring the correlation between the Nazis' sick "romanticism" and some of the annoying excess near the end of said overture.

AND--by the way--I just looked up Rienzi on Wikipedia. Previously I just knew the music, and no more, but now that I know its plot and premise, I am rather disgusted:

"The opera concerns the life of Cola di Rienzi, a medieval Italian populist figure who succeeds in outwitting and then defeating the nobles and their followers and in raising the power of the people."

Yech.

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Epistemological Engineer wrote:

Gary: I wasn\\\'t implying that Wagner was guilty because the Nazis loved his work and used it for their own propaganda. Rather, I was underscoring the correlation between the Nazis’ sick “romanticism” and some of the annoying excess near the end of said overture.

I don’t see how this “correlation” is meaningful. I happen to like the Rienzi Overture in its entirety. So what are we to conclude from that? That Gary Brenner shares the sick romanticism of the Nazis?

AND--by the way--I just looked up Rienzi on Wikipedia. Previously I just knew the music, and no more, but now that I know its plot and premise, I am rather disgusted:

“The opera concerns the life of Cola di Rienzi, a medieval Italian populist figure who succeeds in outwitting and then defeating the nobles and their followers and in raising the power of the people.”

Yech.

Romanticism and republicanism were intertwined throughout the 19th century. See, for example, the political career of Victor Hugo.

Edited by Gary Brenner
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I’ve read the first. In fact, I recommended it in my first post on this page. The point is that unless you have Wagner’s own words outlining an anti-capitalist thesis for the Ring, your claim is nothing more than a subjective interpretation.

Furthermore, whether Wagner was a Christian or not is irrelevant to your allegation that there is something objectionable about his libretti. Let’s see some evidence for that assertion.

You seem to be not understanding a simple set of facts:

Everyone has an opinion

Many of these opinions may differ from yours

I gave my interpretation of Wagner. You have yours.

I left out the other part of my opinion (namely that his music is over-written, bombastic, teutonic crap) since it didn't contribute much.

I do however have enough respect for Wagner to hold that there is more to what he had to write than pleasant flights of romantic and mythological fancy. I do believe that, like most serious artists, he was actually trying to say something. And I think you are demeaning his work by holding the content in such low regard.

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I have no opinion on Wagner’s music, but I wanted to comment on German Romanticism…

I think it’s important to distinguish between varieties of romanticism. Many English and French Romantics (e.g., Byron or Rousseau) emphasized the liberty of the individual against society. By contrast, there is a strong element of collectivism at the root of much of German Romanticism, which often expressed a longing for atavistic collectivities (e.g., neopaganism and the obsession with the Volk). It also expressed hostility towards the modern world and capitalism, and yes, the Jew was often a symbol of capitalism. This type of German romanticism ran strongly in Nazism, as it did in Wagner. I’m not saying Wagner was a proto-Nazi (although he was anti-Semitic), but it is a reason to view with caution his particular sort of romanticism.

P.S. Please don’t interpret this post as a “smear” on Wagner, and don’t demand that I supply “evidence.” I think any "evidence" would require a pretty comprehensive survey of a rather larger literary and cultural movement, and I don’t feel like writing a paper on German Romanticism at the moment. If you doubt my claims, do some research on the intellectual currents in nineteenth and twentieth century German Romanticism (as I have) and then you can come back and pronounce me ignorant.

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Korthor wrote:

I think it’s important to distinguish between varieties of romanticism. Many English and French Romantics (e.g., Byron or Rousseau) emphasized the liberty of the individual against society. By contrast, there is a strong element of collectivism at the root of much of German Romanticism, which often expressed a longing for atavistic collectivities (e.g., neopaganism and the obsession with the Volk).

This analysis is rather simplistic. Such German Romantics as Goethe, Heine and Stirner placed great emphasis on the importance of the individual. On the other hand, the English novelist-philosopher William Godwin and designer and poet William Morris were early socialists.

As for atavism and neopaganism, those tendencies were not confined to Germany. Such eminent English Romantics as Keats, Shelley, Scott and Coleridge celebrated the rustics and primitives of ancient and medieval history.

And with regard to French Romantics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau did more to promote “the noble savage” and denigrate property than anyone else on the Continent.

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I agree my analysis was simplistic. There are many contradictory elements within even German Romanticism. I nonetheless stick to my claim that the tendencies I identified are part of German Romanticism (especially post-1850), and I don't think you will find a comparable longing for national collectivity in English and French Romanticism. One possible explanation is that England and France were long established nations by that point, while the German state was in the process of being established--it is not suprising that people would latch on to a national/cultural/racial mythos to support such a project.

Moreover, Wagner did participate in the bad side of German Romanticism (anti-Semitism, neopaganism, belief in the destiny of the German Volk, etc.).

The more interesting question is, to what extent these bad elements are bound up in Wagner and others' literary achievements? I'm no musicologist, so I'll leave others to decide such questions.

Finally, when I talk about German Romanticism, I'm talking more about the later cultural movement (Weltanschauung) than the literary movement at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. My post wasn't meant to be a dig on Heine, whom I like a great deal.

Oh, and Rousseau was still a defender of liberty (within his historical context), but if you really want to debate the subject we can start a new thread.

Edited by Korthor
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I agree my analysis was simplistic. There are many contradictory elements within even German Romanticism. I nonetheless stick to my claim that the tendencies I identified are part of German Romanticism (especially post-1850), and I don’t think you will find a comparable longing for national collectivity in English and French Romanticism. One possible explanation is that England and France were long established nations by that point, while the German state was in the process of being established--it is not suprising that people would latch on to a national/cultural/racial mythos to support such a project.

Moreover, Wagner did participate in the bad side of German Romanticism (anti-Semitism, neopaganism, belief in the destiny of the German Volk, etc.).

British nationalism and a belief in Empire can be found in writers as diverse as Austen and Doyle. Furthermore, Germany produced a number of humanistic writers in the late 19th century: Gottfried Keller, Adalbert Stifter, and Wilhelm Raabe, to name a few. As for Wagner’s “bad side,” again I will ask, where is this expressed in his operas? If we are to criticize The Ring as “neopagan,” then by the same decree we would have to condemn Botticelli\'s “Birth of Venus,” Michaelangelo’s “Leda,” and Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” And it would require a doggedly concrete-bound interpretation of Wagner’s mythic operas to miss the values that transcend mere German patriotism.

The more interesting question is, to what extent these bad elements are bound up in Wagner and others’ literary achievements? I’m no musicologist, so I’ll leave others to decide such questions.

And that is the most important point. Even if we identify a certain general trend in German Romanticism, we cannot apply that generalization to every particular case. It would be akin to applying a generalization about Russian-born novelists to Ayn Rand.

Oh, and Rousseau was still a defender of liberty (within his historical context), but if you really want to debate the subject we can start a new thread.

Yes, a defender of “liberty” within the context of his call for a submission to the authority of the “general will.”

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We are dealing in "simplistic" generalities, so you can no doubt find counter-examples, and ultimately people familiar with 19th century European culture will either be convinced of my analysis or they won't, but I'll give it another try...

I would make two distinctions between English Romantic nationalism (e.g., Kipling) and German Romantic nationalism (e.g., Wagner):

1. German nationalism is much more rooted in the past, in the historic sense of the Germans as a "Volk." While you can find some Arthurian legend and whatnot in the English writers (e.g., Tennyson), the English rely much less on a sense of myth in defining their national ethos. After all, one of Tolkien's main motivations was precisely a lack of English myth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that "progress" was an essential component of English national identity. In short, the English looked to the future, the Germans to the past.

2. The English nationalist (i.e., imperial) project was framed in universalistic terms. After all, it was "the white man's burden" (Kipling) to bring civilizatoin to the world. By contrast, German nationalism was much more exclusivist. They thought of themselves as a particular people, and had no desire to spread "German-ness" across the globe. To put it another way, when the English conquered people they set up schools. When the Germans conquered people, they killed the Jews.

Anti-semitism is a broadly European phenomenon, and one can find examples of it everywhere--including in Wagner. The Nazis might lead one to suspect the Germans were a bit more serious about it than others, but it would be unfair to blame Wagner for the Nazis. On the other hand, I would make the claim that an essential aspect of the way the German Romantics conceived their identity was contra-Jewishness. The Jew was a symbol of capitalist modernity,the erosion of community, and the debasement of "Kultur" and "Kunst." For an exemplification of these views by our friend Wagner, here's a quote from "Jewishness in Music":

"According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force. That the historical adversity of the Jews and the rapacious rawness of Christian-German potentates have brought this power within the hands of Israel's sons — this needs no argument of ours to prove. That the impossibility of carrying farther any natural, any 'necessary' and truly beauteous thing, upon the basis of that stage whereat the evolution of our arts has now arrived, and without a total alteration of that basis — that this has also brought the public Art-taste of our time between the busy fingers of the Jew, however, is the matter whose grounds we here have to consider somewhat closer. What their thralls had toiled and moiled to pay the liege-lords of the Roman and the Medieval world, to-day is turned to money by the Jew: who thinks of noticing that the guileless-looking scrap of paper is slimy with the blood of countless generations? What the heroes of the arts, with untold strain consuming lief and life, have wrested from the art-fiend of two millennia of misery, to-day the Jew converts into an art-bazaar: who sees it in the mannered bricabrac, that it is glued together by the hallowed brow-sweat of the Genius of two thousand years?."

There is also a vigorous debate about Jewish steotypes in Wagner's operas. If you're interested in the subject, I'll let you do your own research. But I'm certainly not the first person that suspected Wagner of anti-Semitism (that was one of Nietzsche's main reasons for the sudden shift in attitude demonstrated in "Nietzsche Contra Wagner").

In addition, no discussion of late 19th century German Romanticism would be complete without a mention of Schopenhauer. His influence on that period can not be over-estimated, and his influence on Wagner in particular is well documented, especially in "Parsifal." Schopenhauer refashions Kant into a pessimistic crypto-Buddhist philosophy of abdicatoin... certainly not something to be admired.

To sum up, there are at least four disturbing aspects that are especially strong in 1850-1940 German Romanticism in general and Wagner in particular:

1. hostility to modernity/longing for mythic past

2. a sense of German-ness rooted in both culture and race

3. anti-Semitism

4. Schopenhauerian pessimism

I'm not writing this to dismiss Wagner--I have no particular opinion on him as an artist. But I do think that he participated in and contributed to a Weltanschauung with some disturbing elements. So did Nietzsche, and he is one of my favorite writers.

"Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains."--JJR

Edited by Korthor
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If Christian themes are offensive to you, then the bulk of Western art and literature must be a major turn off -- from the Sistine Chapel to Les Miserables. Even Rand’s favorite composer, Sergey Rachmaninoff, wrote “Come, Let Us Bow Before The Lord.”

And trying to read anti-capitalist messages into ancient Nordic sagas is just silly.

This excerpt from Ayn Rand's letters suggests that her opinion of Wagner and his vision was much different from her opinion of Rachmaninoff and Victor Hugo:

To Ethan C. Mordden, assistant editor at Opera News.

Opera News asked AR to write an article on the nature of heroism in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.

June 20, 1974

Dear Mr. Mordden:

I appreciate your interest, but I cannot participate in your project.

It is true that my schedule does not permit me to undertake any outside writing assignments, but this is not the only reason in this particular case. Wagner's idea of heroism and his image of the hero are not mine. In fact, they are the opposite of mine.

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